Cheap writers can be expensive

Sarah O'Keefe / Opinion7 Comments

Given the choice between an inexpensive writer with a limited skill set and a professional technical communicator, which should you choose?

First, a disclaimer. All of these numbers are estimates and based on anecdotal experience rather than solid research. If you want something academically defensible, you are in the wrong place.

I’ve been considering whether cheap writers are actually cheap. So I did some basic calculations:

Let’s compare a cheap writer at $40,000 per year to an expensive technical communicator at $80,000 per year.

Cheap Expensive
Base salary $40,000 $80,000
Benefits 30% 30%
Total annual cost $52,000 $104,000
Cost per hour (1800 hours) $28.89 $57.78

Hmmm. Doesn’t look too good for the expensive technical communicator.

Now, let’s describe our two contenders:

  • Cheap writer: Hired into a technical writing job with little or no previous experience in tech comm. Perhaps a background in marketing writing or in technical support. Not much expertise with tech comm tools or templates. Definitely lacking an understanding of writing for localization. Little interest in learning the profession.
    Primary reason for hire: Cost.
    Motto: “Style guides are annoying constraints on my creativity.”
  • Expensive technical communicator: Previous technical writing experience (5-10 years). Knows and understands tech comm tools. Follows templates and style guides religiously. Always looking for opportunities to make content production process more efficient. Writes short, clear, jargon-free sentences as a matter of course. Looks for opportunities to improve knowledge of products (sit in with technical support, attend customer training classes).
    Primary reason for hire: Combination of writing ability, domain knowledge, and tools.
    Motto: “Reuse is my friend.”

(Yes, I exaggerate. Remember, this is a blog. If you are looking for reasoned academic discourse, please move on immediately.)

Now for the part where I invent productivity numbers that you can challenge.

Here are my assumptions:

Cheap Expensive
Time per topic, hours 4 2
Yearly output, topics 250 500
Editing load, percentage 30% 15%
Editing time, hours per topic 1.2 0.3
Localization efficiency 5% 25%

Some explanations:

  • I assume that each writer has 1,000 hours of actual writing time per year. One writer takes about four hours to write a topic; the other takes about two hours. This differential is based on more efficient use of tools (less flailing around looking for the right way to do something in the authoring tool), better understanding of the products (less research required), and better productivity with the actual writing.
  • The editing load is the amount of time required to edit or review a topic. The more experienced technical communicator produces content that requires less editing and less time asking the editor (or a mentor) questions.
  • Localization efficiency is mostly a measure of reuse. The expensive writer produces content in which 25% of information can be reused and therefore translated automatically. (There are other considerations, such as the correct application of templates. That cost is included in the editing load.)

Based on these numbers, we discover the following:

Cheap Expensive
Total cost per topic $150.22 $132.89
Total cost per 250 topics $37,555.56 $33,222.22

Not looking so cheap any more, that cheap writer…

(The cost formula is to take the loaded hourly rate and multiply by the total time per topic. For the cheaper resource, that’s $28.89 per hour times (4 hours writing plus 1.2 hours editing).)

Now we come to the Big Kahuna—localization cost:

Cheap Expensive Difference
Number of words to localize per 250 topics (62,500 words minus localization efficiency factor) 59,375 46,875 12,500
Cost per language @ 25 cents per word $14,844 $11,719 $3,125
Translation cost for 10 languages $148,438 $117,188 $31,250
Total cost of creation, 250 topics, 11 total languages $185,993 $150,410 $35,583

The details:

  • Here, we factor in localization efficiency. Both writers have a total of 62,500 words in their 250 topics. But the cheap writer gets only 5% credit for localization efficiency whereas the expensive writer gets 25%. Therefore, the actual word count for localization is much higher for the cheap resource.
  • We then calculate the cost of localization of the actual word count sent for localization.
  • The cost of translation into 10 languages is over $30,000 lower for the better content. This dwarfs the cost savings on writing the original content.

It’s also worth noting that 25% is relatively low. In more mature content creation environments, a more typical number is around 50%.

The expensive technical communicator who produces consistent, reusable content saves huge amounts of money in localization. Cheap writers can be very expensive.

The full spreadsheet is available as a public Google doc. Feel free to make yourself a copy and do your own calculations.

About the Author

Sarah O'Keefe


Content strategy consultant and founder of Scriptorium Publishing. Bilingual English-German, voracious reader, water sports, knitting, and college basketball (go Blue Devils!). Aversions to raw tomatoes, eggplant, and checked baggage.

7 Comments on “Cheap writers can be expensive”

  1. Ok I’ll bite. There is an assumption that localization efficiency, in the sense of “less is more”, is A Good Thing. That may not always be the case, if you want your content to be more engaging.

    In the case of time per topic, hours, you could distinguish between research time and writing time. The cheaper writer will probably need more time to research and understand the product, and this explains part of the reason why their productivity in producing topics is likely to be lower.

    1. Hi Ellis,
      I think you can make a case for more engaging information and variability, but in the scenario I’m describing, the lack of reusable content is due to sloppiness.

      And yes, research time is definitely an issue.

  2. Another Big Kahuna is developer time taken to produce each topic. Technical writers always occupy some of the time of the product developers, for research purposes, and that is a cost as well.

    Pulling numbers out of thin air, suppose the cheap writer occupies the developer for 20 minutes per topic, and the developer costs $60 per hour, then developer time cost for 250 topics is $50,000 per year.

    If the expensive writer, with better knowledge of the subject matter takes only 10 minutes of developer time per topic, the developer time cost per [250] topic[s] is only $25,000.

    But that’s not all, because developer time is almost always on the critical path to product shipment, so if the cheaper writer takes up more of the developer’s time, that means the product will be later getting to market. That cost could be in the millions.

    Then we could get into the question of whether the inexpensive writer even wrote about the right things, and the potential support costs that follow from that.

  3. Also consider the differences in customer satisfaction and support costs with clear, findable, highly usable content vs. drek.

  4. As they say “you get what you pay for”. Cheap writers equal cheap writing.

    Other factors to consider are customer support and training. If customers can’t find the information they are looking for, or worst don’t understand what they are reading, customer support calls increase, thus increasing a company’s costs. Also, if the training department is leveraging content from the technical documentation, they may find themselves writing more content rather than leveraging the “cheap content”.

  5. This was really awesome. We are dealing with the high cost of “cheap” technical writing my company right now. It really sucks.

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